SC orders gov't to comment on petition vs. China-funded Chico River project

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 10) — The Supreme Court (SC) on Wednesday has ordered the government to comment on a petition to declare a China-funded loan agreement unconstitutional.

The high court, through the Office of the Solicitor General, urged authorities to comment on the Makabayan bloc's petition to temporarily stop the implementation and void the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project, Supreme Spokesman Brian Hosaka announced in a press briefing.

The Supreme Court ordered the respondents to file their comments on the petition within 10 days.

Members of the Makabayan bloc on April 4 asked the high court to issue a temporary restraining order on the the multi-billion project, which had been critics have tagged as "onerous." 

The petitioners, led by senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares, said the loan deal has a confidentiality clause that violates the public's constitutional right to information on foreign loans contracted by the government.

Colmenares earlier said the irrigation project could turn out to be a "disaster" for the Philippines.

The project broke ground in June 2018, and was among six bilateral agreements signed in April last year.

Malacañang vows to respond

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo assured the Palace will respond "properly" to the judiciary's order.

"We will always respect whatever the other branches do or perform following the Constitutional directives to each branch. So we will respond to the petition," Panelo told reporters in Malacañang.

The spokesman, however, defended the constitutionality of the loan agreement.

"The loan agreement has passed through many channels. There had been many reviews and evaluations, we feel that it's not in violation of the Constitution as alleged by the petitioner,"Panelo noted.

The petitioners' camp meanwhile welcomed the directive from the high court.

"We still hope that the Court issues a temporary restraining order or an injunction to prevent the government and China from enforcing the loan agreement," Colmenares said in a statement later in the day.

"We also urge the respondents to immediate comply with the Court's ruling given the far-reaching implications of this and other loan agreements on our people."

An open review of China loans

On the other hand, the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) urged the government to open the review of contracts with private firms and foreign entities to civil society groups.

FDC President Rene Ofreneo said the public should be involved in the review of government contracts for transparency.

He said the FDC is particularly interested in reviewing loan agreements with China because of the supposedly onerous provisions they contain.

"Although sinasabi nila [they're saying] the debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio is low, but the way we are accumulating loans is so fast and so big. That's what happened in the 1970s under (former President Ferdinand) Marcos," Ofreneo said.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio earlier warned China could seize the natural gas deposits in Recto Bank if the Philippines fails to pay its US$62 million loan for the Chico River irrigation project.

Ofreneo warned the government's policy of borrowing money from foreign lenders could result in a smaller budget for social services as the administration prioritizes the repayment of loans.

President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered the review of existing government deals with other countries, to remove provisions that may prove to be burdensome to the Philippines.

CNN Philippines Correspondent Anjo Alimario contributed to this report.